Straightwashing

If it's not enough of an indignity to be resoundingly spanked by the passage of eleven amendments forbidding gay marriage, gay folk are now in the position of reading articles in The New York Times announcing that the Human Rights Campaign and other mainstream gay rights organizations are engaged in a "debate over whether they should moderate their goals in the wake of [their] bruising losses." In the face of such a rout at the national level, the mainstream press seems to expect that queers, tails between their legs, will follow the DNC in castigating themselves for promoting any agenda other than that of corporate interests.

What's interesting to consider is how it became plausible for the Times and other members of the press to read the success or failure of gay marriage as indicative of the gay rights movement's relative progress. Or, more precisely, why "gay marriage" has come to stand for gay rights, when historically, many of those involved in the gay rights movement have fought not only to achieve sexual freedom, but also to destroy those larger structures of power - classism, racism, and patriarchy - that contribute to the oppression of those who are different. Given the fact that some progressive queers read marriage as symbolic of the very culture they seek to transform, it is not surprising that they see the quest for marriage rights as inherently problematic.

Yet it can also be said that because the Right so successfully used the threat of gay marriage to galvanize voters in the re-election campaign of President Bush, those working in mainstream gay rights organizations were compelled to respond: the gay community was under attack. And, following the truism that "no publicity is bad publicity," it made sense for them to re-appropriate the negative attention by demonstrating that gay and lesbian couples deserve the rights granted to their straight married analogs. As stories about gay marriage crowded out reporting on other issues that could have been the central focus of the movement, the debate about marriage, either by default or by choice, appeared to be the main concern of gay people as much as the Christian fundamentalist base. At the pride parade in Atlanta last summer, for example, almost all of the floats focused on marriage, and participants threw intertwined rings to the spectators to remind them of the Christian Coalition's efforts to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage.

Although it makes sense that mass spectacles, such as Pride Parades, would respond to the dominant depiction of gays through camp and resistance, the very success of the Right in commandeering the rhetoric about marriage served to exacerbate an already existing tension in the gay rights movement. What has happened among the queer community in the last two years is that the question of gay marriage has become attached to a larger debate between radical and assimilationist camps about the political priorities of the movement. Should queers focus their attention on the way they are depicted in mainstream culture, seeking dispensation from the larger straight world, or should they work to achieve rights by transforming American culture as a whole? Books like Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why its Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, for example, argue that "same sex marriage extends and clarifies the mission" of marriage by "shoring up the key values and commitments on which couples and families and society depend." Others, like Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore, editor of That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation find it "ironic that the central sign of straight conformity is seen as the pre-eminent goal of the gay rights movement." For radicals like Mattilda, marriage is a signifier of class privilege, a way of dividing a particular version of gay identity from the larger queer community. Among queers, the prospect of gay moms or dads, cheerily waving from the windows of suitably bumper-stickered Volvos, seems to evoke either heartwarming ideas of social progress or the urge to vomit and throw rocks.

What does a gay family look like?

The Human Rights Campaign is a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing "equality based on sexual orientation and gender expression" and ensuring that GLBT Americans "can be open, honest, and safe at home and at work." With a membership of nearly 600,000 and an annual budget of 30 million dollars, it is the largest and most wealthy gay rights organization in the nation. Its task is twofold: to lobby the federal government to include the needs of GLBT individuals and families in national legislation, and to support state gay rights organizations in their efforts to lobby the legislature and overturn anti-gay laws and ordinances. Last year, according to Seth Kilbourn, Director of the Marriage Project, the HRC gave 1.7 million dollars to state gay rights organizations and devoted 1.6 million dollars to its education and get out the vote efforts.

When the HRC decided to lobby for marriage rights, therefore, it sent a strong signal to other organizations that gay marriage should be the issue around which the gay movement should coalesce, and many, such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, followed suit. The HRC created an ad campaign as a central component of their lobbying efforts, running the ads in newspapers and periodicals with a readership potentially sympathetic to gay and lesbian rights.

The ads - black and white photographs of gay couples - are beautiful, and have a visual and textual consistency. One ad depicts a white lesbian couple sitting under a tree with their daughter, another an interracial lesbian couple who stand with their heads resting lightly against one another, and yet another a "senior" white lesbian couple who sit on a park bench holding hands. The text accompanying the photos explains that "Anna and Marion are worried about losing their house," whereas "Jo and Teresa don't qualify for full social security survivor benefits even after a lifetime of paying taxes." Marriage, the ads explain, will save these families from troubles straight couples never have to face. Implicit in this stylized representation of gay families is the argument that gay people deserve marriage rights because they are "just like you," with the implied receiver of the advertisement a straight, middle-class professional who is either already married or aspires to be. The tacit link between the viewer and the people in the photographs is their shared notion of what it means to be a family - quite literally, of what a family looks like.

Though the ads are attuned to the multicultural spectrum of gay and lesbian couples, they are silent on the issue of class. The message is clear: gays and lesbians work hard, save money, buy houses, have children - in short, want to achieve the American Dream - and they deserve its benefits because they pay their taxes like everyone else. To be fair to the HRC, it's important to remember that the ad campaign was designed not only to persuade viewers to vote against anti-gay marriage amendments, but also to counter the propaganda put forth by groups like James Dobson's Focus on the Family. When you're in an image war, it makes sense to fight fire with fire - for every freshly-scrubbed Christian family, HRC substitutes an impeccable pair of gay men, designer pants neatly pressed, beaming proudly at their twins.

What's lost in all this attention to the politics of representation, however, is the long-term impact these images have on the gay community and the element of the straight world that chooses to valorize them. By arguing that gay couples deserve the recognition and rights conferred on those who are married, HRC and others have also chosen to create a particular image of gay culture, one palatable to straight people because the realm of difference exists in the space of the private. Because most Americans believe in the right to privacy, and because the Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, making sodomy legal, HRC strategically evokes the law of the land to buttress the arguments for gay marriage. Because gay couples differ from straight couples only in the realm of sexual object choice, the campaign implicitly argues, they should not be subject to discrimination.

In this sense, the argument for gay marriage becomes not only a discussion about rights, but also about the distinctiveness of gay people. If to be gay is just about a sex act, and now a legal one at that, then discrimination against gay people becomes merely a matter of sexual prudery. Anyone who is hip enough to realize that sexuality is more than the missionary position, it would seem, should be able to support gay marriage, and by extension, full gay rights.

But it is precisely this argument that denies the radical diversity of queer culture, and the fact that queer identity, for most who embrace it, implies far more than sexuality.

By representing the family as a nuclear unit composed of a couple and their children, the HRC's ads tacitly reinforce the definition of the family that fundamentalist Christians have claimed is under attack. Sociologists have long demonstrated that the notion of marriage and the family that is currently celebrated by conservatives is inherently white and middle-class, doesn't represent the majority of family structures in the country, and is a recent invention. While it is hardly shocking that conservatives are claiming an ahistorical definition of the family as a way to promote a very contemporary agenda, it is notable that when gays and lesbians share this definition, they erase the diverse models of the family that are one of the hallmarks of queer culture. In this sense, even as they fight for the rights for gay and lesbian couples, the HRC and others capitulate to the idea that the conservative definition of the family is the ideal standard to which all others hope to conform.

Rauch builds on this argument by maintaining that established couples benefit society by making a commitment to care for one another. Because this commitment is difficult, those who do the work should receive special benefits. To the straight eye, gay culture appears to suffer from "a case of Peter Pan syndrome," he concedes, but "marriage says . . . if you will make a commitment, you will receive the legal recognition and special status which only marriage brings. If you assume the responsibilities of adulthood, you will get the prerogatives." If those who are "adults" deserve special status, then by extension, those who are single or who live in communal living arrangements do not. Rather than arguing that all people deserve healthcare, for example, Rauch and others contend that married people, by virtue of their relationships, deserve more rights.

When I posed this challenge to Seth Kilbourn, he told me that "the healthcare system is broken" and that HRC "wants to be a part of any debate" about reforming the system. The question becomes, what would happen if all the money raised to promote gay marriage was instead used to lobby for universal healthcare?

Gay Sex Doth Not a Queer Make

For Mattilda, who quipped that HRC should stand for "homogenous ruling class," the choice to make marriage the centerpiece of gay rights is "frightening" because it demonstrates the power those in mainstream organizations have to allocate resources and to choose which segments of the larger queer community will receive the greatest benefits. What has happened to the gay community, he asks, when queer residents of the now valuable Castro neighborhood of San Francisco protest the building of a shelter for homeless queer youth because it compromises their property values? It is only those who already have class privilege and property, he argues, who are able to attain full social equality when granted the rights linked to marriage. "Why are homelessness and police brutality not queer issues?" he asks, and why does the movement not fight to overthrow the systems of power that discriminate against many people, rather than just queers?

Among queers, the argument for gay marriage not only implies a set of assumptions about class privilege and political priorities, but also has become inseparable from the question of representation. Because gay people lack the numbers and financial power to attain civil rights, they must petition straight culture to be recognized. Galling as this proposition is, it immediately raises the question of what it means to be gay, in the eyes of the straight world and then in the eyes of queers. To say that being gay is only about sexual object choice is to argue within the narrowest possible parameters. There is no need to engage the question of why married people deserve health benefits and those in other communal living arrangements do not. There is no need to define marriage, and there is no argument about what it means to be queer. Instead, gay people become straight people who love someone of the same sex. Those who are transsexual or who refuse a fixed notion of gender identity are not only left out of the current discussion, they would have to create a completely separate set of arguments to defend their civil rights.

If to celebrate marriage is, symbolically, to celebrate a traditional notion of the American Dream, then those queers who reject gay marriage are also often rejecting a particular notion of being - one associated with whiteness, with class privilege, with suburbia, with monogamy, with children, with property. It is the wholesale rejection of American individualism, in fact, that is frequently the subtext of the dissent, among queers, to the arguments for gay marriage. It is clearly inconceivable to some Americans that there are those who might not order their lives along this particular path by choice, rather than by disenfranchisement. There are certainly many queers who do long for a traditional conception of marriage and the family and are denied these structures because they are different. And there are many queers who are, in most respects, indistinguishable from their straight neighbors.

But what is important is that many who embrace a notion of queer identity to queer not only sexuality but also being believe that queer culture is vastly superior to that of the straight world and is in danger of losing its voice under the marketing blitz created by the queer wedding industry. The question becomes, what would happen if all people were granted the rights accrued to marriage, and not just couples? What would happen if the greatest, most exorbitant fantasies of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell actually came true? In what ways would American culture be radically changed not by the mainstreaming of virtually straight couples, but by the queering of America? I suppose the question I am asking, one impossible to answer, is the extent to which the queer subculture is alternative in a creative or a reactive sense. It seems that these questions have yet to be raised, precisely because those who identify as queer want no part of mainstream culture, and those who want in are willing, it seems, to sacrifice at least some of their privileges of difference.

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